Emergence of a new pole?
Coming amid the collapse of West-led neoliberal economics, the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party will likely project China’s alternative political philosophy of ‘common prosperity’; it remains to be seen if it can take India onboard
The 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) — established in 1921 — will begin its week-long deliberations on October 16. The party today has more than 85 million members and is the major policy-making body of China. The 2,000 delegates of the members will meet in plenary session to select the new faces for the party's Central Committee of 200 full-time members. From this Central Committee, a 25-member Politburo will be formed, which would select a seven-member Politburo Standing Committee which is the most powerful organ whose business is to select government office bearers.
During the famous Long March (1934-1935), Mao Zedong had attained the leadership position in the CCP and held on to it till his death in 1976. After Mao Zedong's death, Deng gradually rose to supreme power and led China through a series of far-reaching market-economy reforms, earning him the reputation as the "Architect of Modern China". Reforms undertaken by Deng led China away from a planned economy and opened it up to foreign investment and technology, and introduced its vast labour force to the global market.
Xi Jinping (b 1953) has been serving as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) since 2012, and president of the People's Republic of China (PRC) since 2013. He was designated the party's "core" in 2016, reflecting the fact that he holds far more authority than other members of its top leadership. In the 20th party congress of CCP, Xi is likely to be elected for the third time to extend his presidency till 2028.
In March 2018, nearly 3,000 members of China's National People's Congress voted for the highly controversial constitutional amendment after Chinese lawmakers passed changes to the constitution, abolishing presidential term limits. This allowed a president of China to rule the country indefinitely. The two-consecutive-term limit to China's presidency was put in place by Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in 1982 in order to avoid the kind of chaos and tumult that could sometimes happen when a country has a single authoritarian leader. In some ways, the move represented the end of China's forty-year-long reform era.
The change in presidency rule automatically aligned it with the other posts Xi holds, as head of the Communist Party and head of the military, neither of which have term limits. Two additional amendments, designed to shore up Xi's supremacy, were also approved through the same vote: the addition of a political philosophy called 'Xi Jinping Thought' to the constitution, and the creation of politically driven "supervisory commissions" tasked with investigating party members and civil servants, reported The Guardian.
Then, in November 2021, the CCP adopted a "landmark resolution" of the party's major achievements in the last 100 years. The document, a summary of the party's 100-year history, addresses its key achievements and future directions. The party leadership's resolution on its history was only the third since its founding 100 years ago, following one under Mao Zedong, the first leader of the Communist government, and another under Deng, who launched reforms that turned China into an economic powerhouse. The decision to issue one under Xi symbolically raised him to their status. This resolution has set the stage for President Xi Jinping to extend his rule by praising his role in the country's rise as an economic and strategic power, and approving a political history that gave him status alongside the most important party figures, reported Firstpost.
Meanwhile, debate is heating up over whether the Mao-era title of "chairman" will be revived for President Xi Jinping — a change that could position him to lead for life but remains deeply controversial. The title is seen as nearly synonymous with Mao Zedong, founding father of modern China, who held it until his death in 1976. China's constitution at that time granted the party chairman broad powers, including command of the country's armed forces. As per a report by Nikkei Asia, the position was also held by Hua Guofeng and Hu Yaobang before being abolished under Deng Xiaoping on the grounds that it encouraged Mao's consolidation of power and the cult of personality surrounding him, ultimately contributing to the Cultural Revolution.
Significance of CCP 20
The forthcoming 20th Congress of CCP is significant for various reasons. Xi has already revolved from Deng's "reform and opening-up" economic policy with his own "common prosperity" push. His moves to resurrect the chairman post have been seen as a bid to break with Deng in governance as well, capping off his efforts to move away from the collective leadership system established by his predecessor — something that many in the party object to, reports Nikkei Asia.
In addition to the risks of plunging China into a new age of political turbulence and one-man dictatorship if Xi is re-elected, which is very likely, the forthcoming CCP Congress has attracted global attention as this very important meeting of Chinese policymakers is scheduled at a time when the world economy is in a bad shape. Stagflation has set in and many developing countries are facing an unprecedented debt crisis due to rising energy costs and appreciating US dollar. The IMF has downgraded its global growth projections three times already — to 3.2 per cent for 2022 and now 2.9 per cent for 2023. The Ukraine war has further worsened the Covid-infected economy. In 2023 a global food crisis is also predicted.
In the meantime, every industry is struggling with disruptions, stemming from COVID-19 to geopolitical conflict, exposing the vulnerabilities in current supply chain strategies. One supply chain solution that has been considered is on-shoring. That is, bringing manufacturing of key components back within the borders of the country where the company is operating. The more recent approach to supply chains is "friend-shoring"— that is, developing relationships with key suppliers around the world to prevent supply chain disruptions. As war and the pandemic expose the fragility of supply chains, the US and its allies are pursuing a new kind of global trade, one that confines commerce to a circle of trusted nations. It comes after a series of disruptions, including the Covid-19 pandemic, Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and a trade war between the US and China. Promoters of friend-shoring see it as a chance to revamp global supply chains to reduce their reliance on countries with autocratic governments and non-market economies, namely China and Russia. They say it is a compromise between full-fledged globalisation and isolationism, and between offshoring and domestic production.
Against these developments, the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party has attained enormous significance. Its outcome will determine the future of China in particular, and the world in general.
Xi' major policy initiatives
It is argued that ever since the establishment of the People's Republic of China under the Communist Party of China, the two impulses of ideology — nationalism and revolution — have shaped the politics of the country. While the nationalistic worldview referred to the acute desire to restore the glory of China, the revolutionary worldview referred to allegiance to the core beliefs of Marxist-Leninist doctrine, with Chinese adaptations. Every leader from Mao Zedong to Deng Xiaoping and, lately, Xi Jinping has sought to play both depending on the need and situation.
China under Mao witnessed a strong imprint of both nationalistic and revolutionary impulses. The post-Mao era, however, witnessed a turn away from its revolutionary identity towards a reformist one, while still retaining the nationalistic character But, since the ascendance of Xi Jinping as the General Secretary of the CPC in 2012, the revolutionary impulse has regained its place alongside nationalism in the official Party narrative. The 'Xi Jinping Thought' that has emerged as the guiding ideology to lead China down the path of national rejuvenation exemplifies the ideology-authority relationship. It is touted as the ideological succession and a 'great leap' in the process of 'Sinicisation of Marxist ideology' so as to suit local Chinese requirements.
In 2017, the Party Congress' 'work report' declared that China had reached a new era marked by the transition under his leadership — "from growing prosperous to getting strong." Two major initiatives by Xi, namely the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Maritime Silk Route, have been instrumental in changing China's passivity" into an assertive strategy. BRI is a global infrastructure development strategy adopted by the Chinese government in 2013 to invest in nearly 150 countries and international organisations. It is considered a centrepiece of the Chinese leader Xi Jinping's foreign policy. As of August 2022, 149 countries were listed as having signed up to the BRI. The Maritime Silk Road is a complementary initiative aimed at investing and fostering collaboration in Southeast Asia, Oceania and Africa through several contiguous bodies of water: the South China Sea, the South Pacific Ocean, and the wider Indian Ocean area. It was first proposed in October 2013 by Xi Jinping in a speech to the Indonesian Parliament.
Introduced at the beginning of 2021, "common prosperity" has become a defining theme of Chinese politics today, serving to set critical priorities for Beijing across economic, environmental, and social policy, at both the national and local levels. Focused largely on alleviating systemic inequalities, the common prosperity campaign has been described as a transformational new path for China's development. President Xi Jinping's push for "common prosperity" — aimed at narrowing the nation's persistent wealth gap — underpins moves to limit the power of China's technology giants, to cool ever-rising house prices, to encourage philanthropy and to embrace clean energy. The drive has dovetailed with a clampdown on the entertainment industry that has targeted live streamers and actors over tax evasion, and placed "improper" celebrity culture under scrutiny.
Chinese model of democracy
In August this year, Chinese President Xi Jinping stated that China had conducted a nationwide campaign that gathered public opinion on what the country's senior leadership should look like in the next five years. He called it an example of a "whole-process people's democracy," which Beijing has touted as being better than the West's model of democracy. This brand of democracy, practiced in China, appears to include holding local elections and frequent public consultation on issues. State media outlet Xinhua said that Chinese authorities gathered 8.54 million online opinions on China's upcoming National Congress, where changes to the country's top leadership positions are announced every five years.
Just ahead of US President Joe Biden's Summit for Democracy in December 2021, the Chinese State Council Information Office published, on December 4, 2021, a whitepaper outlining its distinctive conception of democracy. The whitepaper titled "China: Democracy That Works" comprehensively expounds the major ideas, standards, the core essence of, and China's major contributions to the 'whole-process people's democracy'. The whitepaper states that democracy is the right of the people of all countries, not the exclusive domain of only a few nations. It suggested that measuring the world's diverse political systems with the same yardstick and judging mankind's variegated political civilisations with low-resolution, monocular vision is undemocratic, and criticised the US for "monopolising" the definition of democracy and imposing American-style democracy on other nations, reported National Review.
The analysts argue that much of China's emphasis upon democracy – through an alternative discourse that deviates considerably from the West's – was rooted to the country's search for a plausible and emphatic legitimation narrative. Deng viewed his regime's legitimation narrative as primarily end-driven – to solve some of the most pressing socio-economic problems confronting the Chinese people, especially those victimised and traumatised by a system that recognised no profits and individual innovation. "Let some people get rich first," Deng declared. Hu and Wen – both openly complied with norms concerning succession as set out by Deng Xiaoping.
Xi Jinping's first term sparked a marked shift toward making meritocracy as a foremost critical component of China's legitimation narrative. In 'Xi Jinping's Thought', merit is to be understood dynamically – not just in terms of technical expertise or political skill sets, but also in terms of resonance with the people. Indeed, as set out at the 19th Party Congress in 2017, a core tenet undergirding Xi's expectations for party members is that Chinese governance must be "people-centred." Merit is to be measured not by the elite, but by the masses. Here, Xi draws heavily upon the Maoist ideal of the "mass line" – the masses are both the originators and receptors of the government's mandate, and merit is measured in terms of whoever can best fulfill the needs of the public.
"Democracy with Chinese characteristics" is but a logical end-product that draws upon a mixture of Jiang's emphasis upon representation, Hu and Wen's insistence of stability and harmony taking precedent over competing demands, and Xi's fusion of Mao's emphasis upon the masses with a more top-down, centralized account of Chinese meritocracy. The newly coined notion "whole-process people's democracy" replaces the more typical criteria measuring processual democracy (e.g. enfranchisement and suffrage rates) with a holistic measurement of whether people's lives are materially and substantially improved, reported The Diplomat.
But it is alleged that today's landscape is markedly different from even a few years ago, when civil society groups were able to operate in the relatively permissive climate that started under previous president Hu Jintao. By 2018, the government's zero-tolerance of activism came to a head with the authorities suppressing a budding #MeToo feminist movement and arresting dozens of student activists. AFP has reported the collapse of civil society in China. As Xi sought to eliminate any threats to the Communist Party, many non-governmental organisation workers, rights lawyers and activists were threatened, jailed or exiled. As per a report by NDTV, in 2015, more than 300 lawyers and rights defenders were arrested in a sweep named the "709 crackdown" after the date it was launched — July 9.
It is very likely that geopolitical and economic strain will push the world economy to consolidate into two blocks, led by China and USA respectively. The neo-liberal supply-side economics which has dominated the global policy discourse of the Northern countries has failed. The world may encounter another phase of Cold War 2.0 and instead of North Atlantic nations; countries on the Indo Pacific will emerge as the main stakeholders of the new world order. A bi-polar world, if not a multipolar one, is emerging, replacing the decades' long hegemony of the USA and its allies.
It is expected that China will pose a challenge to the Western bloc with an alternative political philosophy-'Common prosperity', as spelt out by Xi. It will allow China to better prepare for a future where technology will supplement jobs not replace it. Analysts believe that China's socialist values will allow it to better adapt to the future compared with places like the US, which will struggle with social and ideological division. The Chinese system — which combines traditional values such as altruism and a sense of community with elements of socialism and a market economy — will offer a better political model to humanity, reported LiveMint.
Till the 1970s, India, which strongly believed in the philosophy of non-violence as a political programme, enjoyed the respect of developing countries of Asia, Africa and South America, and leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Atal Bihari Bajpayee, led the non-aligned movement. Unfortunately, during the last four decades, India has lost that eminence. Now in this fast-changing global arrangement, how India aligns itself with the emerging groups will decide the fate of millions of its citizens.
Will the Chinese dragon and the Indian lion dance together? If they do so, it would be the most attractive and successful event of this century.
Views expressed are personal